The Use of Color in Art Therapy

By Withrow, Rebecca L. | Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview
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The Use of Color in Art Therapy

Withrow, Rebecca L., Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development

This article reviews the published literature on the separate fields of art therapy and color therapy, synthesizing them in a proposed use of color within art therapy. Specific techniques focusing on use of color in a nonrepresentational expressive form are suggested as a way to extend the therapeutic benefits of art therapy.


As art therapy has increased in popularity during the twentieth century, a growing number of counselors have begun encouraging clients to do more than just talk about their feelings. Temporarily abandoning clumsy verbalizations, patients are leaving their couches in droves and heading for the art studios to sculpt, mold, paint, draw, and collage their innermost emotions and conflicts (Gladding, 1998). Art therapists believe that the artistic process brings to surface feelings and emotions in the same way that free association does, incorporating benefits of both talk therapy and dream analysis, but accomplishing more than either one does alone (Case & Dalley, 1992; Ganim, 1999).

However, most of the focus in art therapy is on the creation of an image or a representation of reality. Ostensibly missing from the discussion are the therapeutic benefits of nonrepresentational visual art. Preimage elements of art, such as line, form, and color, can be used by clients themselves in their own healing (Rhinehart & Engelhorn, 1982). Much, in fact, is known about color and the effects it has on people, but this knowledge has seldom been applied in any depth to art therapy.

The use of color in creative expression can add a valuable dimension to traditional art therapy, for two reasons. First, color has been proven to have a profound impact on the mind and body. Second, it lends itself easily to nonrepresentational art, which can fill in some of the therapeutic gaps left by representational art. The intention of this article is to demonstrate how knowledge about art and color can be combined to enhance traditional art therapy. After brief descriptions of the fields of art therapy and color psychology, the essence of both is used to propose a new therapeutic function of color, in a nonrepresentational form of expressive therapy.


The practice of art therapy, born of the psychoanalytic theories of Naumberg (1973) and Kramer (1973), is based on the idea that the deepest emotions exist within the unconscious mind in the form of images, not words. This concept paves the way for a very intensive and effective form of counseling and a premise for the use of color and nonrepresentational art in therapy.

Ganim (1999), in Art and Healing, offered a theory about left brain/right brain phenomena that explains why the unconscious is expressed through images and how this pertains to mental health. The left brain, which communicates verbally, is analytical and critical, able only to tell us what we think we feel. The right brain, which communicates in images, is symbolic and emotional, and can tell us what we actually feel. When we talk about our emotions, we allow our left brain to interpret them through a linguistic, critical filter that is filled with all sorts of baggage (e.g., cultural expectations, limitations of words). Conflict of ten persists because something gets lost in this translation. Ganim expressed the in-effectiveness of verbalizing emotions: "We try to talk it out, yell it out, get it off our chest, but in the end the feelings remain the same" (p. 23).

Emotional and mental unrest are the by-products of this conflict between the heart and the head, or the right and left brain. The goal of therapy, according to Ganim (1999), is to synchronize these two aspects of our personalities. Art therapy can prove superior to talk therapy in accomplishing this goal, because it allows us to experience rather than verbalize our feelings.

In the sense that artistic expression brings forth feelings from the depths of the unconscious in the form of imagery, art therapy is similar to free association and dreaming.

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